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May 19, 2005

Anglicans Acquiesce to Catholic Dogma on Mary
by Jon M. Sweeney

This is no little matter. The doctrinal distinctions may be blurry or inconsequential for those of us outside the classroom, but they are significant issues that once separated Anglican from Roman Catholic.

Or, perhaps more accurately, they once separated Anglican ecumenical officers from Roman Catholic ecumenical officers.

Their joint statement/document, released on May 16, is already known as the “Seattle Statement.” An international gathering of delegates from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Anglican Consultative Council have been meeting off and on for the last five years, but they most recently completed their work in February 2005 in Seattle, Washington. Hence, the “Seattle Statement” which was released today and will be published in book form (Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, 96 pp, $14.95) at the end of this week by Morehouse, a publisher specializing in serving The Episcopal Church USA (and co-publisher of explorefaith.org books).

Debra K. Farrington, publisher at Morehouse, told explorefaith.org: “Anglicans have long looked at Mary through the lens of Scripture, as an inspiration for discipleship, while Roman Catholics have focused more on Mary’s ongoing ministry. This important report recognizes that both approaches are important, both are incomplete, and they are two sides of the same coin. We have something to offer each other in our common devotion to Mary, and this report lays that groundwork.”

Two Catholic dogmas—one adopted as recently as 1854, and the other in only 1950—have been deemed “consonant” with the spirit of biblical teachings, according to the Anglican delegation.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that the Virgin Mary was without the taint of original sin. Pope Pius IX defined this in 1854 as “the doctrine which declares that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception…in view of the merits of Jesus Christ…was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.” There are very fine distinctions at work here. It is not that Mary was miraculously conceived, as was Christ, but that her soul was sanctified by God’s grace from the moment she became human.

The dogma of the Assumption (1950) states that Mary holds a special place in heaven, where her body and soul are believed to have been assumed after physical death but before any corruption of the body was permitted to happen. Pope John Paul II often quoted from a sermon preached by a sixth-century bishop, Theoteknos of Palestine, to argue this point: “Christ took his immaculate flesh from the immaculate flesh of Mary. And if he prepared a place in heaven for the Apostles, how much more then for his mother? If Enoch and Elijah were translated to heaven, how much more then should Mary, who like the moon in the midst of stars shines and excels among all prophets and Apostles?”

Until now, the Anglican argument has been simply that these dogmas were extra-biblical and therefore not worthy of widespread belief. That’s now beside the point, says Australian Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley, who was the co-chair of the joint commission that produced the statement. Carnley explained from Seattle on May 16: “For Anglicans, that old complaint that these dogmas were not provable by scripture will disappear.”

But disappear how, exactly? How will this joint statement on Mary change the perspectives of everyday Anglicans/Episcopalians in the pews, or even their priests?

In an interview with explorefaith.org, Douglas LeBlanc, an Episcopalian and the editor of GetReligion.org, argued differently. “Carnley’s remark is quite simply ridiculous,” he said. “The Seattle Statement is typical of what I would call ‘bureaucratic ecumenism,’ which proceeds as though unity in Christ can be brought about through archbishops making declarations on behalf of their communions.”

Other Episcopalian experts see the matter differently. For The Rev. Clair McPherson, rector of Trinity-St. Paul’s in New Rochelle, New York, the Seattle Statement—and its relaxation of doctrinal differences—is cause for rejoicing. He explained: “Doctrinally, Anglicanism finds its greatest strength in inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and openness. This has always seemed to us most congruent with Apostolic tradition and with the ethos of the pre-Nicene, undivided Church.”

But, why would the Anglican ecumenical leaders change their perspective now, at this particular time? Douglas LeBlanc’s lack of enthusiasm for the new agreement has nothing to do with a disapproval of Anglicanism moving closer to Rome. “I think the Episcopal Church would be healthier if it embraced more of Catholicism, especially in its moral theology,” he said.

Rev. McPherson, who is also an adjunct professor at General Theological Seminary in New York City, suggests that “The Anglican delegates were resisting the Reformation-era prejudice against any doctrine that is ‘non-biblical’—the reason most reformed churches deny the two doctrines mentioned in the Seattle announcement.”

Also, could it be that the Anglican/Episcopalian delegates wanted to emphasize the distinction between a progressive (classically Anglican?) approach and an evangelical approach to reading the Bible? In the ongoing battles between Anglicans worldwide—who range widely today from progressive to evangelical—over the issue of openly gay bishops, many on the progressive side have argued that Anglicans do not, and never have, sought to interpret the Bible without the dual aids of tradition and reason.

Somewhere behind the conclusions of the Seattle Statement may be an additional point that is being made: It is un-Anglican to believe that all belief is to be located in scripture. In that sense, Rev. McPherson articulates the progressive Episcopal spirit best: “I find myself agnostic on the question of [Mary’s] Assumption. I doubt strongly that any Anglican would be compelled to believe in it, but I would want any Anglican to feel free to believe in it, which is a different question entirely.”

For more information on the joint statement, visit http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/articles/39/75/acns3978a.cfm.

Jon M. Sweeney is an Episcopalian author and editor living in Vermont. His latest book is The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition. His memoir, Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood, will be published this Fall.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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